Twisted Agendas by Damian McNicholl

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Twisted Agendas by Damian McNicholl

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Andy Lancaster
Reviewed by Andy Lancaster
Summary: A combination of some atmospherically detailed writing and a plot which links somewhat unpredictably the lives of a young Irishman in London and the American girl he meets there make this a reasonable read. While this is not 'edge of your seat' stuff there was enough dynamism and potential to keep me interested to the end, but ultimately the novel fails to truly engage.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 288 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Legend Press
ISBN: 978-1908248022

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Writing about Ireland and the Irish, especially the dimension of the Troubles and the IRA, from a third-hand American perspective is a recipe for cliché and stereotype. Balancing and interweaving the story of American journalist Piper with that of Irishman Danny's search for independence in London does enable McNicholl in some part to achieve a wry and knowing stance, making us hope for a clever twist away from the predictably which always seems so close.

But we have so much that induces a rather dull inevitability – the IRA cell, the daughter of an IRA fundraiser in the USA, the gauche and naïve Irishman escaping the conservative entrapment of marriage and the family firm are all here. And at times the predictable plot devices that emerge, like the discovery at the back of the wardrobe, or the 'out-of-nowhere' atrocity have a clunkiness about them that almost made me stop reading. But what did keep me going was the sense of truth in small detail that peppered the descriptions – the CDs on the floor, the glimpse of a face through a shop window, the trivia of everyday life that McNicholl picks up on. These hinted at a better novel emerging.

Mostly, it is true that these details have no great import, but they do give us a reality that the plot and to some extent the characters lack. And that in turn kept me turning the pages to reveal an overall structure which does contrive to expose both characters' underlying innocence, and while the final dramatic conclusion of the novel still creaks a little with a lack of authenticity, there still is a sense of a conclusion, of both of them growing up.

So ultimately we have a thriller which to be honest fails to thrill, but does work somewhat better on the level of an account of the complexity of confronting an alien culture. The twin and interlocking narratives of the exiles, away from their roots and trying to understand a contorted world hint at an author looking for something deeper. Unfortunately these literary aspirations don't truly come to fruition any more than the thriller dimension – the essential cloak of illusion and belief which allows us to enter into the world of any novel isn't quite there, and I felt we were witnessing an author showing us the techniques of writing without quite getting us to lose sight of the scaffolding and mechanics of his art.

It is difficult to pick through the mountain of literature which concerns itself with Northern Ireland, but The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry really stands out as a work embedded in the labyrinth of sectarianism but also rising above and beyond to create insights into a life lived through these troubles. On the USA/IRA/thriller front Among Thieves by David Hosp sounds a more accomplished take on a somewhat similar theme.

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